Christmas Lunch in Prasat Pong Keoy Temple
It all started 8 years go when a monk came to see me about a forest ………..
Skip 8 years and we’re trying to find it again, this time with Lors and Buntha, not helped by its many names. Prasat Yoni or Temple of the Clitoris being the most mentioned. Lors was given the mission and came back with tales and a photo of a temple but it but it was nothing like I remembered and anyway too close to Beng Melea, a major temple complex about 30km away.
Chum Nean the monk, who in 2010 was trying to protect his village from the encroaching rubber plantation
In the glory days of our romance with Amansara* we had helicopters and oxcarts to the Tamarind Temple as a standard trip. Last year Apsara, the temple authority built a road and put an end to our white tablecloth champagne temple lunches. So we needed a new one – temple that is.
*The uber luxury Siem Reap Resort
Move on a year and it sounded like Lors had rediscovered it so we set off on a recce trip and found the fabled Yoni, it wasn’t the one but it was close. Pong Keoy really didn’t want to be found. We were bush bashing 20 meters away and still couldn’t see it.
A man called Thierry who had 700,000 hours and not much else as it turned out, was a possible candidate to seek permission from the Angkorian King JIV for lunch inside his temple, but that affair ended in tears.
Skip to October at The Ivy Restaurant in Chelsea and a lady called Di who had a client called Peter and we’ve almost got to the start of the story. A boat called finfoot and the Tonle Sap Lake made an entrance. There was an oxcart, which wasn’t as it was pulled by water buffalo together with a calf who tottered alongside.
Until we come to the day itself but not so fast, there was a helicopter to organize. It seemed simple in August but by October when we went to choose a place to land and record the GPS coordinates, the dusty dry countryside had become a large lake. Forget helicopters kayaks would have been more useful.
Oxcart (except they were water buffalo) ride from Wat Prasat Pagoda
Countryside around Phum Krabi Real Village, where we were taken by our buffalo
So back again at the beginning of December and a landing site chosen but by the end of the month the countryside looked different and Prasat Pong Keoy was up to its disappearing act again.
Let me introduce the supporting cast; Ra the temple guide, Buntha AKA Mr Fixit, Miss Wong master chef Dean. Then there was Black-dog the van driver and Bong Kroyun, who steered the tractor or kroyun and Mr Pal who made mince meat of helipad construction. Oh and myself. My main job was to panic and pester to the point where it was easier to get the logistics sorted than put up with me.
Things go at their own pace, to be messed with at your own peril or most likely slowing down whatever you want speeded up. So while I hadn’t a clue why we were waiting at Buntha’s house in Samrong his village, it became clear as events took their own course.
Logging, encroaching agriculture and forest fires had taken their toll since we last visited. The paths looked different and we went down the wrong one. Not an auspicious start to our big adventure.
Who was our guest? I can’t really say, client confidentiality and all that but suffice to tell his online profile was considerable and intellectually engaging. The rest of his family, Sarah his wife and 3 fey daughters, Princesses sheathed in gossamer gowns, crowned by coronets – lady’s of the lake.
Kayaking across the floodplain near Maichrey floating village
Mr Pal, Buntha, Black-dog and myself hacked our way through the undergrowth to glimpse the blocks of laterite that made up the walls of the mythically difficult to find Prasat Pong Keoy. As if that wasn’t hard enough termites had colluded to prevent entry. There was a tantalizing peek at the West entrance but short of wriggling across a bed of ants no way in. Illegal logging and vandalism had bulldozed a hole in the wall to get at a valuable rosewood tree, our necessary entry point.
Dinner courtesy of Miss Wong on board finfoot
The gash in the wall was like a link in time to a thousand years ago when a different world was inhabited by a culture that hadn’t yet outgrown its environment.
A microclimate of intense humidity and heavy mystery hung over the ancient remains of what the kroyun driver told us was a halfway house along a long gone Angkorian road between the major temples of Koh Ker and Beng Melea. Our presence was like a warp in time but not space as we carefully cleared away the secondary growth since whoever had been here last.
Tripping over tilting stones we found a central tower block with multiple entry points. One lead to a blind chamber adorned by primitive Apsara*. Four had been defaced but the furthermost corner carving had escaped the vandals. Fern fronds hung from the temple terraces like they were planted at a Chelsea Flower Show feature garden.
First glimpse of the temple (left), unique Apsara (middel) and Prasat Pong Keoy (right)
More to the point where were we going to balance the table and chairs for Christmas lunch?
We retreated to clear a route through the vegetation and coarse grass back to the rutted laterite road we’d left. We saved the helipad for the next day. We leap frogged each other as our motorbikes took it in turns to get punctures and made it back to Samrong.
A house if you’re lucky enough to have one is just a space in Cambodia. We furnish and decorate our rooms according to what we’re going to use them for in a way that pleases us. In Cambodia if you want to wash you find a space where you can scoop water from a pool. If you want to cook you use a clay charcoal pot to boil or fry whatever you’re cooking. And when you want to sleep you roll out a mattress, hang a mosquito net and if you’re lucky position a fan. In spite of or because of this different approach I lay on my comfortable mattress in relative cool, clean and well fed. Waking the next morning in a surprisingly grumpy mood.
We stopped in Svay Leur Town at a corner dump for breakfast, literally. The ‘restaurant’ was a space in a pile of rubbish – its own. Breakfast shreds of dried pork on a pile of equally dried rice with a pot of something turgid to pour over.
There was a kroyun where Buntha had organized one to be and another on its way so we set off to scythe rice straw. I seemed to miss the straw and hit worm mounds sending the blade flying from its handle and quickly turning the callus on the palms of my hands into blisters. It was then I realized that my future career didn’t lie with rice farming.
Preparing the helipad; Buntha (left), Mr Pal and Bong (Brother) Kroyun
I was much better at making an H. It started as an H but we cleared some more so added an I and connected it to the H with a hyphon I-H. Since our retiring temple seemed to change location each time we visited I went to check that it was still there and see if I was better at hacking vines and lianas than rice straw.
Dean had arrived on the second kroyun, so we ported the provisions through the gap in the walls and proffered the stage from which he was going to work miracles, so far so good. We cycled back to the helipad to see if the helicopter carrying our precious guests had arrived.
Meanwhile the rice farmer whose field we’d appropriated had turned up. He’d heard on the jungle grapevine that a barang was digging up his land. Mollified by Buntha he saw instead that we’d cut his straw for him so he retreated to a safe distance to watch the fun with his wife.
A while later a whir could be heard across the forest and a speck in the sky materialized into our aircraft. It circled the landing site a couple of times, deciphered my I-H and descended amidst a blitz of rice straw.
Our guests approach and arrival
“Mr Fletcher I presume,” I’d been saving it up for a long time. “Good to meet you,” he generously replied. We arranged his family on the kroyun trailer and set off on the trail for lunch.
It had been a good call to mechanically convey these gentle creatures rather than line up mountain bikes and expect them to wade through the sand. A chain of boys was waiting to guide them through the laterite portal to where Dean like a big mother hen dispensed cold towels and bonhomie. “Your temple.” There was a collected wow before they started exploring its nooks and crannies then settled for champagne and turkey.
Mr Wong performing Christmas culinary magic inside the temple
I sat slightly aside on a stone with a glass of Moet and for the first time in 36 hours started to relax. The Moet gone and half a bottle of Dean’s Prosecco later, I was definitely relaxed as I said goodbye to the guests. Replete with the considerable remnants of the guest lunch, the ‘team’ lined up to convey the cool boxes and general paraphernalia back to the kroyun.
Buntha and I raced ahead on mountain bikes too elated to notice the clogging sand we glided over. We caught a glimpse of the helicopter circling above the trees and that was the last we saw of our guests for Christmas lunch at Prasat Pong Keoy.
As a footnote the kroyun drivers were well rewarded and anybody to hand back at Ta Siem Village got a can of soda. Everyone involved in the undertaking was generously tipped. ‘Could we do it again Buntha?’ ‘Yes,’ he said confidently, ‘we’d just have to pay more.’
I received several messages that night from Mr Foster thanking us for an extraordinary event. Di had asked for something that nobody else had done before. It’s very unlikely that in the temple’s thousand year old history anybody has had Christmas lunch there, especially not a family from London.